ACIAR helps raise farm productivity
ACIAR’s response to the global food security crisis has been to increase efforts to raise the productivity of smallholder farming systems and to explore more productive crop mixes to improve nutrition for poor people, says Deputy CEO and head of R&D at ACIAR, Dr John Skerritt.
“For the poor who live on less than US$1 a day, the consequences of the price increases are disturbing,” he says. “Typically these people spend around 70 per cent of their total income on food. This compares with an average of less than 20 per cent spent on food by people in developed countries. With the rise in food prices, poor families face a choice between devoting more of their slender incomes to buying essential foods, or else buy less food, or food of a poorer quality.”
Lifting productivity involves a wide range of research designed to lift the output of staple crops, develop crops which stand up better to pests, disease or climate variability and introducing second crops or enterprises into farming systems where there is an opportunity to do so. An example of this is growing a crop of wheat in Bangladesh during the Rabi (dry) season, following the traditional rice crop using spare water stored from the wet season. (See this issue of Partners). Other ways to boost productivity include introducing better management of water and other natural resources.
“This approach fits both our goals of helping smallholder farmers to improve their livelihoods, and giving them a chance to grow crops for the market that will take them beyond subsistence agriculture, he explains.
In its current annual operational plan – developed with the food security crisis in view – ACIAR is laying particular weight on:
- Developing crop varieties and production systems that use less water and give higher yields
- Developing rotations which introduce a second crop onto the same land where seasonal conditions permit
- Improving the efficiency of nutrient and water use in rain-fed and irrigated systems
- Finding ways to integrate livestock and fish production with cropping systems to boost farm protein production
- Assisting smallholders to develop horticultural sidelines for cash income
- Helping design better agricultural policies which encourage economic growth and improved food security.
“A particular focus is on encouraging agricultural diversification,” Dr Skerritt says. “In many places there is a tradition of growing only one or two things, but when you look into the system you find that land which could be producing food is lying fallow half the year, there are crop by-products which could feed animals or stored water which could produce a second crop.
“With good research and care in engaging the communities as partners, you can introduce a new enterprise into these systems that will not only improve local food security but give the farming family a source of income they didn’t have before.”
Mixed farming offers particular opportunities if crop rotations are designed so as to support a livestock enterprise by providing fodder at the right times of the year. At the household level, growing the right sorts of vegetables can help overcome nutrient deficiencies and improve overall food security, he adds.
Dr Skerritt emphasises that solutions to the food security crisis cannot depend on costly or scarce inputs, unsustainable farming practices or short-term aid-approaches. “We need to fully understand the total farming systems used by local people – why they do what they do – and then identify ways we can increase its output without compromising either its natural resilience, or to further run down soil fertility and water resources.”
Co-author of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2008, Dr Derek Byerlee, says of this approach: “The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research... is held up internationally as an innovative example of support to agricultural science for development that pays high returns and benefits poor farmers and consumers in developing countries and also in Australia.”
(excerpt from Partners Magazine Nov 08-Feb 09)